Archive for January 2017

Policy Or Ethics?

January 19, 2017

As each of President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet picks get their day in the sunshine before Senate Committees, the recurring questions before these committees involve the nominee’s policy direction and personal ethics.  Is the nominee free of obvious conflicts and conflicts of interest? And, what direction (what policies) would the nominee pursue if confirmed?

With Republicans holding sufficient votes to confirm any and all of Mr Trump’s selections, one wonders what purpose these hearings serve.

The Secretaries of State and Defense seemed qualified, free of conflicts, and ready to perform these important roles. Arguably one could question Rex Tilleson’s qualifications since he has no prior government experience but he was the CEO of the world’s largest corporation and there is a large, in place, civil service State Department staff ready to advise. Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao, breezed through her hearing the easiest of all the nominees. Since there is little controversial about Transportation, other than the billions ($$$) an infrastructure renewal program might create, the Senate Committee treated her with kid gloves.

Betsy DeVos, Tom Price, and Scott Pruitt, nominees for Education, Health and Human Services, and the EPA, on the other hand, presented potential red flags. Each of them in prior public statements have strongly rejected current policies and accepted science.

Ms DeVos is an advocate for vouchers, Mr Price has been a harsh critic of the Affordable Care Act, and Mr Pruitt has questioned the validity of global warming.

The questioning of Ms DeVos revealed (IMO) a wholly unqualified nominee who is intent upon championing the use of vouchers to funnel public tax funding to religious schools. Ms DeVos is a self proclaimed evangelical, and who has never herself attended public schools and chose not to send her own children to public schools. This woman has an agenda.

Mr Price will be charged with implementing the “replace” part of “repeal and replace Obamacare”. Why was any time wasted on questioning his stock trades when there is still almost nothing known about what President Trump will ask Secretary Price to implement? While trading stock upon which the Senate is about to vote is unethical, everyone else in Congress seems to have done it.

But the “replace Obamacare” may also lead to “privatize Medicare” and to “block grant Medicaid”. Is Mr Price going to be comfortable leaving millions of Americans either without healthcare coverage, with second class coverage, or just the best coverage money can buy? (If you have no money, you get….)

Mr Pruitt is most likely qualified to run EPA, if only based upon past government experience. Which direction he will lead the EPA will be a matter of Trump Administration policy and it may be wise, neutral, or dangerously flawed. As the nominee, Price will initially be bound to follow existing law.

On ethics, questions have been raised about Pruitt’s close ties to the Oil and Gas Industries where he has championed Industry positions while receiving large campaign donations from these groups. Unethical? Or has everyone else in Congress done the same with donations from other groups?

These confirmation hearings have shed more light upon how far from “advise and consent”, the confirmation process has drifted. With Congress so conflicted with the need to raise obscene amounts of campaign funding, questioning the nominees appears too often like the pot calling the kettle black.

With respect to policy, elections have consequences. Republicans and President-elect Trump won, and now our Country’s governance is in their hands.

  • Vouchers should be a non-starter if only based upon the first Amendment.
  • If the Trump Administration steps back from the less than perfect Obamacare coverage and insures less Americans, or worse attempts to change Medicare or Medicaid, in two and four years voters will fix that mistake.
  • The EPA might represent the most significant trap for the new Administration. Sophisticated deemphasis which skilled politicians like Scott Pruitt can apply to daily EPA activities, over time, can make the Flint, Michigan lead in water tragedy look mild. Voters will also feel this impact, maybe as early as four years.

No one will remember in four years that Betsy DeVos donated $200 million to Republican candidates, or that Tom Price bought and sold stock while deliberating on legislation, or that Scott Pruitt, while taking large donations from the Oil and Gas Industry, sued the EPA over regulation limits targeting those industries.

What Americans will know is whether education has improved or not, whether their healthcare is affordable and adequate, or whether the air, water, and ground are more polluted or less so.

With respect to these nominees, there is no reason that they could not be successful. Success will not be measured, however, how many Republican check list items are accomplished, but rather by the state of life four years from now.

Where Is The Center In Troubled Times?

January 18, 2017

When George W Bush was elected in 2000, Bush campaigned as a “compassionate conservative”. What could be better, a mix of pragmatism and concern for others? The wealthy smiled as the Bush Administration made a case for two tax cuts. The evangelical community smiled when government policy turned upon science severely limiting stem cell research and linking foreign aid to impoverished countries’ family planning methods.

And the gates were opened for the neoconservative movement, blindly supporting Israel and simultaneously destabilizing the Arab world. Along came the Patriot Act, secret subpoenas, and Justice Department sanctioned torture.  Hmmm. That America’s part of the world tilted strongly to the right and away from the center would be an understatement.

Barack Obama brought into power countervailing tendencies. Science was again respected as evidenced by renewed concerns about global warming, use of data in forming public policy, and research into solar and wind technology. The Obama Administration pointedly worked to end the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and to close the dark spot on America’s image, the Guantanamo Detention Facility. And, most remarkably, the Obama Administration attempted to bring US healthcare into the realm of other world class, modern industrial countries by passing the Affordable Care Act.

The Republican Party, lead by the Tea Party/Freedom Coalition howled in horror about the reckless race to the left. It was not, however, clear that President Obama was guiding America towards the “center” until Bernie Sanders’s campaign revealed much more progressive goals. For many conservatives, however, President Obama’s policies represented socialism, if not outright communism.  To highlight this, the Republican Party’s complete rejection of Merritt Garland’s Supreme Court nomination underscores GOP rejection of centrist governance.

As the Trump Administration readies itself to take office, the Republican controlled Congress appears like the cat ready to eat the canary. The Republican Congress can’t wait to take the country back and “back” will be well to the right of center.

The unknown, strangely is President-elect Trump. Will he focus upon the ideological right or what ever is needed to stimulate economic growth? Will President Trump trade support for right wing ideas in return for support of his growth initiatives? Or, even worse as some conservatives worry, would a President Trump simply be a Democrat in Republican clothing?

“Regaining The Center” may appear a desirable goal, especially in comparison to the conservative hinterlands Republicans boast as the fruits of taking America back. The GOP possesses enough votes in Congress that Republican initiatives can carry the day. “Regaining the Center” may serve the reader well by putting GOP policies in context as a public reminder that Republicans seek benefits for their wealthiest members, at the expense of the average person.  If there are benefits, these pluses flow incidental to their main purpose.

For now, the GOP and the Trump Administration can do pretty much what they wish. In two years and again in four, voters get to assess Republican stewardship.  As with George W Bush’s Administration whose results were mixed but on the big issues, failures, “Regaining the Center” may sound prophetic.  The center may soon appear much less unsettling for independents to shift left of the Trump Administration without doing a full Bernie Sanders.


Ready, Set, Fire, Aim

January 16, 2017

With only a few days left before President-elect Trump becomes President Trump, the feeling is like the calm before the storm. On Friday, January 20th, 2017, the Republican Party gets a full house and a friendly President to boot. The GOP wish is to undo the last 8 years and make the future like the past, the distant past. The public has been advised “to fasten their seat belts” and watch our elected leaders make things happen beginning on the very first day.


We can remove some mystery about any consequences from GOP actions. There will be massive reductions in taxes paid by the top 1%. Even the irresponsible repeal of Obamacare is at its core a tax cut for the wealthy.

Corporate tax rate reduction unless accompanied with elimination of business tax deductions, exemptions, and loopholes will accrue more money for the wealthy. And eliminating the myriad of regulations which we are told are hamstringing our economy, will put even more money in the wealthiest’s pockets.

So for at least some Americans, January 20th should be a red letter day.

Every action has a reaction too. Repeal of Obamacare will immediately beg the question what happens to those insured by the Affordable Care Act? The GOP will attempt to keep enough of current Obamacare recipients covered that they can look the camera in the eye and say, “see we replace Obamacare with patient centered, not Washington centered healthcare”.

But two facts will emerge. (1) The GOP will have to find money to cover whatever parts of the ACA it puts forward as “patient centered care” and will most likely hide their healthcare subsidies. With no new taxes, the healthcare costs will go straight to the national debt.  The GOP will adamantly deny this with a look of sincerity.

And, (2) The number of people covered will shrink as will the quality of their coverage.  The “free” market will offer reduced coverage to those unable to pay the going price for standard coverage. Those impacted the most will be the most vulnerable and, not surprisingly, those least able to garner public sympathy.

This is a pretty sad commentary on the Grand Old Party.

But there’s more.    IMO, Trump will support juicing the economy with tax cuts and government spending so that his prediction of greater economic growth can materialize. Trump, however, will run into opposition from fiscal conservatives who want to see the debt decreased, not increased. Trump, the deal maker, will step forward offering to trade his support for much of the GOP agenda, despite his own preferences, in return for support of new spending.  You scratch my back, I will scratch yours. Hmmm.

With “Ready, Set, Fire, Aim”, Republicans will run unnecessary risks. Unintended consequences and collateral damage are almost assured with current GOP plans. As the first 100 days domestic casualties begin to mount up, voters view of President Trump will become tarnished.  At that point, President Trump will make sure everyone knows he favored this or that, and instead those in Congress, much over rated, all talk and no action did not follow his advise and are to blame. Hmmm.

Most of the Republican game plan will hurt small groups… initially. For example, the 20 million ACA subscribers pale in comparison to the greater 340 million US population. Increasing the Federal Debt won’t impact anyone at first. The subsequent risk, however, is the building pressure to reduce other Government spending… like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and a myriad of social safety network programs. And as these messy regulations are revoked, freeing up America’s great capitalist engine and creating jobs on every corner, conditions for another financial meltdown, run away inflation, and renewed disillusionment with Washington will gratuitously appear.

President Trump has an initial White House lease for 1461 days. It would be a shame for the Trump Administration to let hubris in the first 100 days help destroy the next 1361.

Tyrannos To Tyrant?

January 13, 2017

Greece is usually given the credit for introducing the world to “democracy” as a method of governing. Of course, early Greek democracy does not resemble what we know to be Democracy in the 21st century, but in comparison to kings and pharaohs lead organizations, Greek Democracy was a radical departure. Hmmm.

President-elect Trump is poised to become President Trump and a fair question to ask is will the Trump Presidency begin with Tyrannos Trump and proceed to Tyrant Trump, or is the US democracy strong enough to overcome partisan attacks?

Democracies are difficult forms of government to maintain. Citizens are required to participate in law making as well as seeing that laws are followed. Citizens normally perform these tasks by thoughtfully choosing representatives who in turn propose, debate and create the laws upon which the greater population will be governed.  Citizens also select a chief executive who commands military resources  which will protect the country as a whole.  The Chief Executive, through various agencies ensures the laws are observed.

What happens when citizens do not take the task of picking representatives and the chief executive seriously enough.  What happens when citizens think disproportionately about themselves and their own perceived needs and place little or no importance on the country as a whole?

Long ago the Greeks encountered just such a situation. Their answer was to willingly ceed ever greater amounts of power to their selected ruler.  In time that ruler held ultimate power. The Greeks called these persons Tyrannos, or in modern English, Tyrants. Is the US on a similar path with the election of Donald Trump?

Tyrannos is a priori neither good nor evil, wise or misguided, nor effective or tragically ineffective. A “Tyrannos” is someone a democratic society has given more and more authority, without appropriate limits, normally to solve some great problem facing the country.

History has shown, however, that Tyrannos are never satisfied until they have achieved absolute power, and usually attempt to discard inconveniences of democratic governance in favor of authoritarian measures.  Today we liken dictators to Tyrants.

I wonder whether we are seeing the early signs of this phenomena with President-elect Trump?

One can argue that Republicans won by combining two large groups. Conservative Republicans looked the other way with respect to decency, experience, and integrity, voting for someone who they thought could solve societal problems.  Another group was composed of middle of the road citizens who had been hurt by globalization and lower wage immigrant labor. This group were willing to cast aside “the traditional American way” if there was a chance to regain their vision of the “American Dream”.

Candidate Donald Trump promised these voters (both groups) what they wanted.

In return, Trump asserted new powers by ignoring past practices, speaking mistruths and spreading misinformation, and marginalizing the press. Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, his refusal to insulate himself ethically from his business holdings, and his vindictive, crude, personal attacks on individuals are clearly designed to intimidate.  These are also all signs of a Tyrant’s MO.

America’s democracy is still robust given world standards. Trump’s victory in November appears by all current information to have been fare and square. Donald J Trump will become the 45th US President. But it doesn’t stop there.

All Americans, supporters of Trump or not, still need to stay involved with our democracy. Congress, even one under Republican control, and the Supreme Court, even one soon to be Conservative in majority have important roles to play in ensuring the Trump Administration respects the Constitutions and the Rule of Law.

Should Congress members trade balance of power responsibilities for Trump’s support of their favorite legislation, in essence allowing Congress to look the other way, voters must take note.

As citizens, if we care about democracy, we must not look the other way and remember in two years which legislators did not show up for duty. The 2016 election was very close. The 115th Congress has been selected and will do what it deems best. The 116th, however, is just months away.

If President Trump fails to deliver on his promises, attempts to continue flaunting laws and precedents, or openly tries to claim more power, the ballot box can assist voters in taking back their democracy.

Beginning To Look Back

January 11, 2017

President Obama gave his farewell speech yesterday in Chicago. Pundits suggested President Obama wanted to write his “legacy” before the Trump Administration has a chance to eviscerate it. George W Bush, when asked in the ashes of his failed Presidency, what would his legacy be, replied to the effect, “don’t know. History will determine that and history takes a long time”. Hmmm.

Comparing the two men and their terms in office, President Obama would look hands down the more successful President. But with whom would you rather have a beer?

George W Bush, despite his wealth and familiarity with the moneyed class, seemed such an easy going person and a comfortable person to be around. Barack Obama could also at times display a friendly look but too frequently flashed a message of disdain or intellectual arrogance.

President Obama appeared not to suffer fools well. And in Washington there is no shortage of self centered, free loading, bureaucrats and legislators only too ready to claim something based on half truths or no truths at all.

President Bush was quite correct in saying history takes a long time before it renders a clear verdict. President Obama has much to be proud about but the repeal and replace of Obamacare may obscure his bold (but not bold enough) steps towards universal healthcare coverage. His efforts towards renewable energy and other quality of life issues may confront an unsympathetic Congress and Presidency once Donald Trump is inaugurated. Obama’s 8 year efforts around immigration reform, voting rights support, and inclusion will be an afterthought with the new Administration. What will remain in 8 years is open to question.

On the foreign stage, IMO, President Obama has diagnosed the Middle East (including Israel) correctly. One can argue whether the Arab world should offer the peace branch to Israel or Israel should initiate a sincere proposal first. But until the Arab world settles its power and Islamic sect differences, there is little reason to expect success. The next Administration is likely to take sides, picking which ever group seems most useful short term. Hmmm.

With respect to China and Russia, President Obama rowed against long held State Department views of a proper world order. China and Russia both have a different view, not surprisingly placing their country’s interest ahead of other countries including the US. President Obama diagnosed Asia and in particular China as the country to watch and to update US China foreign policy accordingly.

China is far wealthier and more populated than Russia. Maintaining government control requires meeting the economic needs of its 1+ billion head population.  Unfortunately it will not be easy task for China to continue spreading new wealth to Chinese peasants without 10% growth each year.  Authoritarian countries usually look for outsiders to blame when domestic policies falter.

A fair President Obama criticism might be that in all matters, his preference for “no drama” and “no theater” probably kept him from communicating effectively to the American people in terms they would understand. Whether the issue was healthcare where America spend twice as much as the modern world, and do not provide coverage to all Americans, or where America’s defense budget is 10 times as large as the next biggest spending country, or where America spends more per student on K-12 education than any other country, yet produces test score results in the middle of the pack, President Obama shunned any attempts to bring about change by dramatizing these facts.

President Obama will, however, be remembered from day 1 as a decent man with a smart and gracious wife who lead a White House life, with their children, which was above the fray but not aloof. President Obama’s few emotional occasions dealt with tragedies like the Newtown Elementary School shootings, not whether the Dow Jones Average reached a new high.

Strangely some of President Obama’s most vocal critics come from the African American community. And some of the unkindest words reference little or no progress in jobs and opportunities. Using a football analogy, offensive linemen can out block defensive linemen for just a few seconds creating an opening for a running back. If the back is not ready, or does not run through the opening quickly enough, the running back will be caught for no gain. I wonder why the African American community does not see the chance they had and squandered?

The next Administration will initially be graded in comparison to President Obama’s record. Soon however, Trump Administration policies and unforeseen world events will shape America’s history and the Obama comparisons will cease being relevant. Then historians will have their chance to cast a more informed light on legacy.

Time To Wake Up

January 10, 2017

Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, is about to lead the country’s largest teachers union into battle. Weingarten has called the Union to attention in anticipation the Trump Administration will declare war on public schools under the umbrella of “more choice”. Secretary of Education nominee, Betsy DeVos, is expected to push for more Charter Schools and more “vouchers” for parents to sent their children to the school of their choice. Does this sound American or what?

Before Weingarten begins to rant and rave about teachers contracts she would do well to re-educate Americans on the great success story Public Education has been. The public school system and education it brought to Americans from all walks of life has been envied around the world. American public schools are often credited with building a more productive work force (white and blue color) when compared to other systems around the world which attempt to maximize the education of the most gifted while losing sight of the average and less able students.

In the recent past American public school test scores have slipped when compared to other leading countries. In most major cities, public schools have become source of concern for students safety as well as education. In Philadelphia, however, Central High School still sends more graduates to Ivy League schools than any other high school in the country.

Across the country. many school districts face severe funding shortfalls as flight to the suburbs has decreased the tax base. Negotiation with Unions more often than not has been confrontational rather than collaborative. Tax payers object to paying higher taxes, cities object to meeting teachers’ unions wage and benefit demands, and teachers unions object to being targeted for failing schools when the resources (in their opinion) are denied.

Many believe Charter schools have served a useful wedge in this regard. Charters have promised a superior education compared to public schools and do not cost tax payers more. Since there are no free lunches and Charters are private, for profit, businesses, Charters must spend less for teachers pay and benefits. Charter supporters then point to the generous public school teachers remuneration and imply public school teachers are over paid. Hmmm.

Suddenly an important conversation is off the tracks. Attention is directed away from whether Charters are delivering superior educational results or simply allowing parents to choose a more desirable environment than public schools.

With the Republican majorities, and a demonstrated fondness for turning a phrase, “more choice” will easily mask the real results Charters bring. To date Charters have not clearly demonstrated a model which is superior to public schools. Simply skimming the best students and leaving the rest in public schools is not a prescription for raising education levels in the US.

To be sure there are Charters which have performed extremely well turning around previously failing schools. Most Charters, however, have not performed as well and on top of that, have selected a subgroup of students (read no difficult to educate or mentally challenged).

Randi Weingarten will do all Americans and her Union members a great service if she puts the emphasis on quality of education given equivalent circumstances (social, economic, challenged students) at the cost per student. And Ms Weingarten might as well call out the trojan horse Charter School advocates are readying.  “More choice” is also code for “vouchers” which would allow parents to send their children to private schools instead of public charters.  Religious groups, including the Catholic Church, have been lobbying for this for years.

Public schools educate all students regardless of background or capability.  In addition to the 1st Amendment, Ms Weingarten might remind Americans that private schools could include Islamic “Madrassas” or ideological schools which teach communism for example.

As vouchers send more students to private schools. public schools will be left with what’s not wanted. Sound like a self fulfilling prophecy?

Lastly, Ms Weingarten would do well if she decided which was more important, teachers’ salary and benefits or work rules.  Labor laws support unions negotiating for both but that has gotten matters to the current statement which encouraged Charters in the first place.  If teacher unions continue to remain adamant, they may wake up one day with very few public schools.

Looking Ahead

January 9, 2017

Donald Trump is still President-elect. In 11 more days he will become the 45th US President and the consequences of the 2016 election will begin to be revealed. Trump has woven insiteful advice with his own intellect and killer instincts and achieved a victory most thought impossible. The elephant in the room is will President Trump be as effective when he attempts to put his policies in place in the context of the Republican controlled Congress and the unpredictability of world events.

Looking ahead, here are some thoughts.

  • The President-elect has selected a cast of strong willed people to form his cabinet. The question of the day is, will the new cabinet members be allowed to run their own show, or will the “White House” run it for them? Of course Donald Trump will be the President and as such these cabinet heads report to him, not Congress, and not the voters. But strong willed people normally do not take kindly to anyone telling them how to do their jobs. Who will be the first casualty and will it happen in the first year?
  • The Republican controlled Congress is a quasi stable majority. Republican unity results only from their shared desire to control of Congress, and the perks that follow. As demonstrated with this 115th Congress’ first action, attempting to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics, Congress’ leadership is neither strategic or purposeful. Someone as canny as Donald Trump should be able to pick them apart and get their rubber stamp on any of his initiatives. But what might happen if some part of the Republican Congress gets its back up? What if Congressional members criticize the President?
  • Most financial prognosticators are predicting good things for Wall Street. Tax cuts and spending programs (like infrastructure investment) may stimulate economic growth, some positing as much as 7% GDP growth. But what if promised corporate tax cuts simply flow to the investors and owners pockets and not to creating new jobs? What if infrastructure spending turns into pork barrel projects for key Congressional Committee chairmen? And what if some of the “pork” falls from the pubic trough into the lap of a Trump family member?
  • Repeal and replace Obamacare represents the most obvious risk to this Republican honeymoon. While Republican messaging today (like patient centered healthcare, not Washington centered) is carrying the day, what if the “replace” plan bombs? What if the replace price tag unleashes fiscal conservatives’ wrath?  And, what if Republicans can not stop with Obamacare but feel the urge to rush on with Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security?
  • What if Japan thinks through the President-elects threat towards Toyota building a plant in Mexico? Does anyone rationally believe that other countries will subjugate their own economies to prop up Trump’s Make America Great Again? Picking on small countries like Mexico may appear risk free but other countries are watching and can be expected to prepare defenses if not collaborate jointly to counter balance the new bully.
  • The urge to roll back much of the social progress that has been made in the last 8 years will be huge. Gay rights, women’s rights, and immigration reforms are obvious targets. But don’t over look the myriad of ways to suppress voting rights. This two edged sword may delight some Republican voters but could just as easily bring forward new charismatic Democrat leaders.

The picture just outlined is one of many fast moving parts. Any of these changes could create unforeseen consequences, which in turn could splinter the Republican majority bringing to an early halt many of the Trump agenda items. And should the Republican controlled Congress somehow get to think it was more powerful than the chief executive, they will be in for a fight they can only have nightmares about.

Over the past 8 years the 7/24 news media has grown a business model which feasts upon statements or events which titillate, arouse, madden, or otherwise encourage the reader or listener to jump to some unsupported conclusion or opinion. The media appears to bear no remorse over the dumbing down of news and instead values only its audience ratings and its bottom line. What if enough of the major information sources caught their collective breaths and revisited their journalistic standards? Remember the Watergate investigations?

And let’s not forget the unknowable. What calamities might be waiting around the corner. What if North Korea develops the capability to deliver nuclear weapons intercontinentally? What if Pakistan is overthrown and its nuclear weapons land in a Middle East country’s hands? What if China loses control of its economy and the Chinese Government needs to create an external enemy in order to maintain its domestic control? And, and, and…

Most of all, one must remember voters represent a fractured electorate. Donald Trump will become President with a minority of the popular vote, and his electoral college majority was wafer thin. It will not take much convince enough voters to make Trump a one term President.  And most elements of the Republican Congressional majority would prefer a one term Trump than for themselves to lose reelection.  I wonder who has got whose back?

Governing is much harder than running for office.